We live in a publicity-oriented society, where every last thing done by public figures and far too many things about the lives of private individuals as well are fed to the public as grist for the never-ending publicity-churning mills. Long gone are the days when people did things quietly, modestly, with little fanfare and out of the public eye. Nowadays, if something hasn’t “gone viral” or if it isn’t the talk of the town, it’s considered less than worthless. It’s almost as if it never happened.
In an almost humorous twist, the more “secret” something is today, the more it needs to be talked about! A thousand dollar donation to a worthy institution, while not necessarily secret, is not major news either. A donation of one hundred thousand dollars, however, will be something the donor “really would rather not have publicized,” but is somehow in all the news. A one million dollar donation will be discussed – in every news, entertainment or social medium – as the top-secret donation that somehow leaked out.
We fail to even recognize the irony when we read lengthy, in-depth interviews that begin by noting how the interviewee hates publicity and is quite uncomfortable with public adoration. The fact that the interviewee then goes on to give the interview and discuss everything we ask of him and more, is somehow lost in the shuffle. So inured are we to the lack of any discretion or privacy.
As Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky once humorously put it, “People pay vast amounts of money to stand up and begin a speech by saying, ‘I really don’t deserve all this honor…’”
Of course, what is even worse is when somebody truly does wish to act “under the radar,” as it were, and he finds that as soon as word somehow gets out, everything becomes public knowledge virtually within minutes. Respect for privacy, for modest actions, for the sensitivities and sensibilities of others, is gone.
Imagine, then, a time when a Yid single-handedly saved possibly the very existence of the United States of America, at least as we know it, and his single condition was that nobody ever find out his identity. Not only was that what he asked, but his unbelievable act of rescue was indeed able to be carried out because people in those days could be trusted to keep a secret. From that day in 1863 until today, no one has ever discovered this man’s identity.
What was this amazing story of desperation, despair, and almost-miraculous salvation? We must travel back to the 1860s and to the bloody Civil War that almost ripped asunder the great country that we live in today and that has given our nation such a kind welcome and the freedom to live according to our most sacred beliefs.
The United States of America declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776 and its constitution was ratified by 13 loosely connected states. In the ensuing years, the fledgling country grew in size and in populace, eventually coming to encompass many more states, from the east coast, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to the west coast at the Pacific Ocean. The states did not agree on all issues – one of the major points, though by far not the only one, being slavery – and by 1861, what had been many simmering quarrels and grievances exploded into full-fledged civil war.
With many of the Southern states having seceded from the Northern states over the prior year, the Southern states formed their own government, the Confederate States of America, over which they elected their own president, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. The Northern states, over which Abraham Lincoln was president, was known as the Union, and desperately sought to re-conquer the breakaway Southern states.
At that time, the general-in-chief of the United States Army was Winfield Scott, a physically frail but intellectually brilliant strategist. He devised what became known as the Anaconda Plan (after a South American snake known to squeeze its prey), which was essentially to attack, pressure and advance on the Confederacy from all sides. Combined forces of naval and army units would sweep down the Mississippi River, dividing the Confederacy’s eastern and western states, while at the same time the Union navy would institute a blockade to deny the Confederacy access to European goods or assistance.
This strategy was what ultimately worked and won the war for the Union.
The importance of the naval blockade in this plan should not be underestimated. As an example, in 1860, 191 million dollars of cotton was exported by the Southern states to Europe and other destinations. By 1862, when the Union blockade had succeeded in tightening its stranglehold over the Southern coast, only 4 million dollars worth of cotton was exported. The Confederacy was also unable to import ammunition or other basic necessities.
• • • •
At about this same time in world history, steel was being manufactured and used for the first time. One of its many uses was in ship-building. Up until then, ships were made primarily of wood. A wooden ship, of course, was not too difficult to sink by canon fire. A steel-hulled boat, however, could change all of that,
This reality became shockingly apparent on March 8, 1862, when a fleet of Union naval vessels, all wooden, were preparing an offensive on Virginia. Suddenly, an ironclad Confederate vessel appeared. Named the Virginia, it was the first ironclad warship ever employed in battle. In short order, the Virginia completely destroyed two Union ships and disabled another, causing the Union fleet to withdraw in panic and disarray.
The next morning, though, the Union forces were back with the Monitor, an ironclad vessel of their own. The Virginia and Monitor then engaged in the first ever battle of ironclad vessels. For four hours, they bounced shells off each other’s sides, with neither of them causing any serious damage. Although the battle ended in a draw, it did illustrate how compared to these new warships, even the most powerful wooden fleet would be almost laughable.
The major shipbuilders of the time were in England, which, like many countries, had been placed in an awkward position by the American civil war. Although the British government officially took no side in the American conflict, it was an open secret that they were rooting for the Confederates, if only simply to embarrass and weaken whichever side of the American conflict would ultimately emerge successful.0
Taking full advantage, the Confederates ordered ships from England, using third-party buyers to hide the true destination of these vessels. In this manner, they obtained three vessels, the Florida, the Shenandoah and the Alabama. An ironclad vessel, the Alabama alone caused about 6.5 million dollars of damage (about 94 million in today’s dollars) to Union goods and vessels.
Thus begins our story.
• • • •
Although the following can be read about in all works of history, we will follow the story, for the most part, from the perspective of Lucius E. Chittenden, a Vermont banker, lawyer and politician, who served as President Lincoln’s Register of the Treasury. In his account, Recollections of President Lincoln and his Administration, published by Harper and Brothers (known today as HarperCollins) in 1891, Mr. Chittenden discusses the “miraculous salvation” by one man who swore everyone else to secrecy, which saved the Union “from the greatest danger that ever threatened its safety.”
Charles Francis Adams Sr. (1807-1886), son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, served under President Lincoln as the ambassador for the United States in England. His was the unenviable job of keeping the United Kingdom officially neutral while the Confederacy pushed forcefully to be recognized instead. In 1862, he learned that two massive ironclad ships, or rams, were being constructed by the Laird Brothers, extensive ship builders, in their shipyard in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. He discovered furthermore that these two ships were ostensibly being built for Egypt and were being called El Monassir and El Tousson.
Adams immediately realized that something was amiss. These two vessels were unlike anything ever built. Iron-hulled from the keel up, each had two revolving turrets, were steam-powered with a single screw propeller, and had a seven-foot ram made of cast iron mounted to its bow in addition to other heretofore-unheard-of features. There was no ship in existence that could out-match such vessels. Surely Egypt, a small and backwards country, had no need for such vessels.
After doing some digging, Adams was not surprised to discover that these two vessels were in fact commissioned by Confederate Naval Captain James Dunwood Bulloch, acting under the orders of Stephen Mallory, the Confederate’s Secretary of the navy, and its president, Jefferson Davis, himself. They had set up an elaborate ruse to have these ships sent to the West Indies, where they would be completely outfitted and armed and become the Mississippi and the North Carolina, with which the Confederates could decimate the entire Union fleet and its blockade.
“Greater danger than these vessels never threatened the safety of the Union,” wrote Chittenden. “In tonnage, armament and speed, they were intended to be superior to the Kearsarge, and every other vessel in our navy.” The Kearsarge was the Union ship that ultimately sank the Alabama. If these two new vessels, which could easily out-battle the Kearsarge, would be allowed to leave the shipyard, the entire Union strategy would be blown to smithereens along with its naval fleet. “The old wooden vessels,” wrote Chittenden, “now principally constituting the blockading fleet, would not resist one of these iron-clad vessels long enough for a second broadside.”
Adams immediately set to work gathering evidence to prove the identity of the true purchasers of these two ships. With evidence in hand, he approached the British government and demanded that under their laws of neutrality in the American conflict, they could not allow for these vessels to bought by the Confederates. However, as Chittenden put it, “unfortunately, the sympathies of the party in power in England were not with the Union cause.” The British demanded more and more proof, clearly hoping to delay Adams until the ships would have already left port and it would be too late.
Adams and his agents redoubled their efforts. Eventually, they were able to furnish the British with “sworn affidavits of some of the officers and men actually enlisted in Liverpool” and prove that “that the advance payments to these men had been made by Confederate agents. Mr. Adams had also secured the names of the ships’ officers, with copies of their commissions, bearing the signature of President Davis and the seal of the Confederacy!
“The last installment of affidavits…proved to be more than the crown [British] lawyers could digest.”
They were forced to admit that Adams had furnished enough evidence to force an injunction on the ships’ leaving port, at least until the matter was further judicially investigated.
The British came up with another tactic, one they felt would finally outsmart Adams and his Union cause. After promising that they would indeed order an injunction, they waited until mere days before the ships were to leave the docks. Then they came to Adams with a demand that even he was forced to admit may have been legally, technically, justified.
The British authorities informed Adams that since the decision to order an injunction had been reached ex-parte, without allowing the other side to yet state its case, the Union side would have to put security funds just in case it would turn out that the ships’ owner was not the Confederacy and they would sue the British government for illegal seizure of its property. As such, they demanded one million pound sterling in gold coin before they could actually effect the injunction and seize the vessels.
Adams now found himself stuck. With almost no time before the ships were set to sail, he knew, and he knew that the British knew, that there was no way he could come up with such funds in such a short time. In this way, the British were able to cynically claim that they were indeed neutral and were willing to stop a Confederate war purchase, but that it was the Union that did not allow this to occur by not offering adequate securities for England’s good will.
The situation, Chittenden writes, “was critical.” On top of everything, overseas cables were down, and Adams was not even able to communicate his issue with his own government. “Without such communication, he had no authority to bind his government as an indemnitor, or to repay the money if he could borrow it. Even if he had the fullest authority, where was the patriotic Briton who would furnish a million pounds on the spur of the moment? [T]he crown lawyers must have known that this condition could not be complied with, and that they might just as well have declined to interfere. If they had intended that these ships should not be prevented from making their intended crusade against our commerce and our cause, no better arrangement could possibly have been devised. It is not to be denied that suspicions existed that such was their purpose.
“But,” continues Chittenden,” the unexpected sometimes happens. The event which prevented these floating engines of destruction from entering upon their intended work was as unanticipated as a miracle. It constituted, possibly, the most signal service ever rendered by a citizen of one country to the government of another. It was all the more noble, because it was intended to be anonymous. The eminently unselfish man who performed it made a positive condition that it should not be made public, that not so much as his name should be disclosed, except to the officers of our government, whose cooperation was required in order to transact the business in a proper manner. So earnest was his injunction of secrecy that his identity will not even now be disclosed, although he has long since gone to his reward.”
Within the hour after the British lawyers made known their demand to Mr. Adams, “and when he had given up all hope of arresting these vessels, a quiet gentleman called upon him and asked if he might be favored with the opportunity of making the deposit of coin required by the order.
“Had a messenger descended from the skies in a chariot of fire,” Chittenden avers, “with $5,000,000 in gold in his hands, and offered to leave it at the embassy without any security, Mr. Adams could not have been more profoundly surprised. He had accepted the condition as fatal to his efforts; he had concluded that nothing short of a miracle could prevent the departure of the vessels; and here, if not a miracle, was something much like one. He made no secret of the pleasure with which he accepted the munificent offer.”
Chittenden then goes on to describe the technical arrangements that were worked out between this individual and the Union government for his loan of one million pounds sterling in gold. Everything was done, at the man’s insistence, so that his anonymity would be assured even after he would be repaid. This enabled Adams to offer full security to the British and indeed – to the complete shock and dismay of the Confederacy and the British government – prevented the two vessels from setting sail.
On October 9, 1963, the ships were seized, and Bulloch sadly reported to the Confederate secretary of the navy that “no amount of discretion or management on my part can effect the release of the ships.”
Thus ended this chapter of history, which records that “this action undoubtedly prevented the Confederate Navy from posing an extremely dangerous threat to the Federal blockade and to the Northern seaboard, as both ironclads would have been more than a match for all but one of the United States Navy’s seagoing warships.”
• • • •
Chittenden writes how he was repeatedly asked by various individuals to disclose the identity of the anonymous benefactor, and assures us that nothing would have given him greater pleasure than crediting the man who deserves all the credit. However, neither him nor anyone directly involved in the transaction were willing to break their promise to keep the man’s identity secret.
While his name has thus never become known, one fact about this man has been revealed. Simon Wolf (1836-1923), a Jewish lawyer and diplomat, once asked Miss Kate Chase, the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, who was Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary and eventually was appointed the 6th Chief Justice of the United States, if she knew the mystery man’s true identity. After all, her father, as treasury secretary at the time, was directly involved in the transaction.
While assuring Mr. Wolf that the name of the mysterious personage was unknown even to her, she was yet able to inform him that the man was a Jew. When Mr. Wolf sent Chittenden a letter asking if he could verify this fact, Mr. Chittenden responded that while he was not at the liberty to “directly state” whether it was or not so, Mr. Wolf should be able “through the process of exclusion” to draw his own conclusion from the following:
“It gives me pleasure to say one thing,” Chittenden goes on to say. “The experience of an active life now drawing to its close has taught me that race prejudices have no place in the heart of a true American, and I am certainly not conscious that I have ever entertained a shadow of them against any one of Hebrew origin. On the contrary I have found much in the history of that persecuted race to respect and admire. Yours truly,
- E. Chittenden.”
How this Jew learned of the desperate situation of the Union government, why he decided to assist them, and why he insisted on anonymity is anyone’s guess. There are many plausible reasons that can be easily suggested. Suffice it to say, though, that it is extremely difficult to envision such a situation taking place in today’s climate, when discretion is a forgotten art, publicity a sorry addiction, and where virtually anything known by anyone is somehow leaked out to the public by unscrupulous individuals.
Imagine what would have happened had the anonymous Jew not come forward with his offer, because he was not able to trust that his identity would indeed be kept secret? Would the United States have survived as it is today? Would we know the freedoms we do now to practice our beliefs as we see fit, unencumbered and unmolested?
Keeping a secret is not just a “nice thing.” The Chofetz Chaim teaches that one is forbidden by halacha to disclose something told to him or her in confidence. Perhaps that ought to remind us that not everything needs to be made public in the first place. A little modesty, a bit of discretion – while difficult in the immediate present and while denying one the instant gratification that comes with the adoration and adulation of the public – can go a long way and can pay manifold dividends in the long run, both for others and for ourselves as well.